One writer I really admire is a guy named James Clear. He's the source of the read 20/pages a day system that I mentioned in an earlier post. He writes extensively on habit formation and strategies to formulate creative excellence.
I happened upon a podcast interview with him where he expounded on a lot of ideas in this article: The Difference between Professionals and Amateurs. In short, the difference that he discovered is simply a willingness to commit to regularly engaging in one's chosen work:
Being a pro is about having the discipline to commit to what is important to you instead of merely saying something is important to you. It's about starting when you feel like stopping, not because you want to work more, but because your goal is important enough to you that you don't simply work on it when it's convenient. Becoming a pro is about making your priorities a reality.
I know that I myself have always had trouble committing to seeing repertoire or a recital program through to complete, professional-level mastery. When I was getting tired of practicing the same pieces, my undergraduate teacher would extol the virtues of theater actors: "They have to perform the same play with the same lines and the same actions day after day. They can't afford to get tired of it, and neither can you."
It's true, the point is well taken. These professional artists had to commit to the artistic merits of their production. They had to invest their own talent to bringing a play or a musical to life day in and day out.
I had the opportunity to ask a singer on tour with a Broadway musical how they achieved this professionalism. He said that in such a large ensemble, everyone's individual approach in a given night allowed for subtle variety which could only be noticed by the actors. A scene where the cast casually socializes, free of choreography, would allow for different interactions every single time. The actors could test each other's commitment to character by pushing different boundaries in an attempt to make others laugh. Even the most systematic and planned blocking allowed for variations night in and night out.
I really took this insight to heart. It is the sign of a true professional to withstand seeming monotony and find artistic variations within the repetitive routine.
Pianistically, we have set choreography of notes, rhythms, articulations and dynamics. We even have more subtle elements imposed upon us by performance practice, and the expectations of our teachers or colleagues.
But beyond this there is still a wide margin for variation. The balance between our hands can shift between phrases to show different nuances of a story. Rubato can ramp or ease up to highlight dramatics arcs. We can explore the extremes of individual articulations; staccato does not just mean detached.
A professional pianist shows up with regularity to explore these variations while the amateur pianist explores a piece only when, and until their inspiration lets up. Even the pianist who moves on to pursue something else, even if practicing consistently, but not consistently pushing one's understanding of certain repertoire, will never reach the same kind of professional artistry that others who show up and dig deeper will.
I don't recall how I first came across this book, whether someone recommended it to me, or why in particular I felt the need to read it. But 7 Habits of Highly Effective People became one of the most influential books I ever read.
I never even read the whole thing. I think I read only the first 3 Habits, but they were transformative to me, and I think they have strong implications for musicians and performers.
My main takeaway from this book was that we give power over our lives to other people. When we care about what they think of us, and when we care about what others think about us. When we think a peer or colleague must be spending their waking hours looking for our mistakes and awaiting our downfall.
Before I read this book, I used to think that as I walked down the street, people passing me by were judging what I looked like, how I walked, what facial expression I had. Presumably at some point in my life, I learned that some, one, person was indeed judging me in this way. But this book revealed a secret:
Almost no one is thinking about me, because they're too busy thinking about themselves. If everyone is worried about what other people think about them, they don't have time to actually think about other people. All of this worrying is for nothing. Anyone who's in on the secret has so much freedom to take care of themselves. And it's when we are free of this fear that we get to build ourselves up to love and serve others.
This doesn't mean we shouldn't be immune to criticism or learning from those wiser and more experienced than us. We should be open to careful and constructive moments of learning, which will happen to us constantly. Not allowing others to control our lives means understanding the differences between judgment and well-intentioned criticism.
For pianists, we should absolutely seek out other teachers who want us to grow as artists. But by rejecting the judgement of others, we can be free to develop as individuals, true to the music we understand historically, theoretically and personally.
I discussed my trepidation about being affected (or infected) by the sound of other interpretations in posts about Liszt and Beethoven. I fear making decisions in my playing that aren’t derived from my own authentic voice and so often I try to avoid listening to recordings of pieces that I’m working on.
But that’s hard to stay true to…
I often want to check tempos that others have performed at, especially when the composer writes a specific metronome marking. Was anyone else successful at getting up to speed when I can’t seem to?
I’m a Suzuki piano teacher and a huge part of our system hinges on listening to the pieces before learning them.
Someone might say of my own playing “well it sure sounds like you’ve never listened to a professional pianist play this”, or put a nicer way, “perhaps you should listen to _________ or _________ for some inspiration.” No one has said the former to me, though who hasn’t heard the latter in one way or another?
It has been suggested that listening to recordings is a source of information, a way to solve problems in interpretation. By not listening to recordings that others have done, I’m forsaking my duties as a performer, akin to not studying the basics of performance practice and historical styles.
But who says those professional artists have the right answers? Nowadays, being so easy to put a recording out to the world, who even says these artists are truly professionals, or even artists?
Besides objective, tangible things like tempo markings, areas such as phrasing, rubato and degree of articulation can and will vary from performer to performer, hall to hall, piano to piano. It’s the combination of these varying elements that gives performers their own unique voice. At some point, artists ought to be able to make these choices for themselves.
There is a difference between listening to recordings by others, and knowing the performance style of the time a piece was written in. Very few would ever suggest I not do the latter, so if I do that well, why would I ever need the former? How am I to know if a professional recording I’m listening to has made intelligent decisions?
As I’ve written before, this was one of my goals in pursuing contemporary music. There is great freedom in not having an aural basis to your interpretation, or I should say, an aural basis besides the one that you create for yourself. A piece rarely, or never, played by anyone else can be approached with a completely blank slate and who knows how varied the result might be when intelligent musicians approach a score they’ve never heard before.
I had this experience recently, at a recital by pianist Angelina Gadeliya. Amidst a beautiful program with Bach, Beethoven and Liszt, she performed two works by Richard Danielpour, one of which was just commissioned by her, the other being his Piano Fantasy, a piece I have played a few times over the last 3 years. This was a sort of dream piece for me, a friend of Danielpour’s had introduced it to me in 2010 and I bought the score but between being intimidated by its virtuosity and not having a good program to fit it on, I only learned the piece the summer of 2014.
It’s a gorgeous piece, a set of variations on a Bach chorale, and it has everything, an organ-like opening, a toccata, something of a nocturne, a fugue, and right near the end, the chorale itself, whose phrases are punctuated by various interruptions, and cloaked in a Debussy-esque harmonic aura. More than anything, it’s a true show-piece full of beautiful expression.
I’ve only known of a few other people to perform this piece, and Angelina’s recital was the first opportunity I had to hear it performed live by another person. I hope everyone gets the experience at least once, to hear a piece you know so well, which you’ve only ever heard performed in your own voice, come to life by another person’s artistry.
That may not always be a pleasant experience, but for me it was. Every artistic goal—the scope and large-scale architecture of the piece—that I have had in performing the piece was present in Angelina’s playing, yet clearly this was not an exact aural image of my own playing. It’s like if you had two canvases of the same pointillistic painting by Georges Seurat side-by-side; standing back ten feet, the images look exactly the same; when you stand just 5 feet away, you notice an incredible amount of variety as you see the construction of the dots more closely; 1 foot away, the paintings look the same again because you’ve zoomed so far in, it’s hard to compare individual differences.
Examining the score from a distance, her interpretation and mine were relatively close to one another. Examining the score under a microscope, we played the same notes and rhythms. But our own voices came out upon that middle examination. More than one hears contrasts between artists in the standard repertory, not having any outside influences brought about a variety of musical decisions. The colors evoked by voicings in individual chords. The balance with a texture. The pacing of dynamics. The sweep of rubato.
All this is not to say that I don’t hear variety between artists in standard repertoire. I do, and I love the artistry great pianists bring to old music again and again. But I know that without the persuasion of recordings, I am going to inevitably bring a different voice to music than I would with them. In my next post, I’m going to tell you about a study I’ve always wanted to do, where I think I could prove this point.
You’re supposed to follow your own path, which I guess means building your own road. Plough your own field. Build your own castle. But I don’t know how to build all these things from scratch, and I don’t want to leave my friends and family behind.
Why study history, learn manners and language, social decency and behavior? If we’re supposed to think outside of one box, one area of our lives, why not all others? How do I know when difference becomes a virtue and same becomes a burden?
‘Think outside the box’ is lazy advice and false logic. It’s hard to create something meaningful without having some preexisting knowledge on which your meaningful creation is based. People crave context, as well as innovation and these two things need not be mutually exclusive.
Thinking outside the box values an unknown other just because it’s on the outside, without acknowledging the value of the box itself. After all, if you were in the box, and able to create something outside of it, doesn’t the box have something left to offer? Should we just throw away the box completely?
I’ve never been comfortable with throwing out all the rules. I’ve never been comfortable with disregarding history, objective study and demonstrable knowledge. There’s a reason we study the music of the classical canon; not because that’s where we need to focus on all our time, but because the levers of history, as prejudiced and exclusionary as they have been, have deemed some repertoire vitally important. In order to look at what’s been excluded, or what’s possible in the future, we need to know what general consensus call important now, and by what criteria we measure that by.
All musicians want to be creative, but only the most nihilistic art can be created outside the box, and even then, there’s no guarantee that your audience will understand your performance outside of the box themselves. So where does creativity come from?
Social psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi has answers. Known for his concept of ‘flow’ in expertise (I highly advise studying his book on that subject as well), he also pursued an in-depth study on the state of creativity. How to experts who truly create something new discover and invent new ideas in their domain? Do they truly work outside the box, or in it?
To study this, Csikszentmihalyi and his team performed an elaborate long-term study of individuals at the top of their domain, be it the arts, government, business or science. These individuals have been in their field for decades and are intimately and actively engaged in it. After selection, these individuals were interviewed and their body of work analyzed to cull hints at the source of their creativity. In doing so, he created rules and relationships which point towards the source of innovation, not just for the most genius in the world, but all artistic practitioners.
“…creativity results from the interaction of a system composed of three elements: a culture that contains symbolic rules, a person who brings novelty into the symbolic domain, and a field of experts who recognize and validate the innovation.” (page 6)
Lesson 1 is that nothing new is created in a vacuum. One cannot create without being an expert in a domain, to know the ‘rules’, the state of knowledge, the acts and practices on which all operate.
Lesson 2 is that after demonstrating this knowledge, one can add something to the existing knowledge that is new, original and genuine. Creativity is always tied to what came before, an outgrowth (think of creativity like a giant scrabble game!).
Lesson 3 is that your creative creation must be recognizable to others in the field. Scientific study is predicated on, among other things, replicable tests. If your method of testing cannot be repeated and the same results attained, you cannot say your conclusion is truth. Replication in any field is necessary so that your creation can be useful to others.
Lesson 3, then, circles back to lesson 1. Someone else might take over the body of work in your field, including your creation, and add more. In my doctoral studies, I finally realized that the more you learn, the more you know what’s left to know. Being an expert isn’t about having all the answers, it’s about knowing how to ask the right questions that expands creativity, then, knowing how to pursue answers to those questions.
I once heard the tubist and podcaster Andrew Hitz amend the ‘think outside the box’ statement to something closer to ‘expand the box instead’. Csikszentmihalyi would agree.
As musicians, this has any number of applications. For Hitz, his focus on entrepreneurial ventures for musicians means that we don’t have to create brand new avenues for our music to be heard, but we should try to find better utilize the avenues that already exist. We don’t have to create new audiences out of thin air, but we should be focused on bettering the experience of those who already listen to us.
My focus with this blog is to study what makes great, individual piano performances. But an intentional pianist isn’t ignorant of performers who came before, and doesn’t play interpretations that can’t be defended with intellectual honesty. My goal isn’t to be different then everybody else. Become an expert and know the expectations with a piece you’re learning. Then you can be creative.
Think for yourself. If you come up with a way of playing a piece that you absolutely believe in, do it your way. If you trust your musical instincts are based on listening, reading, and years of playing with the correction of creative masters, then you can rest assured that the way you want to play is justified. You can know that you’re being a true creative pianist, expanding the knowledge and creativity that came before.
Next week, Influential Books hearkens back to my Extraordinary Recordings series, by studying The Great Pianists.
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"Modern performers seem to regard their performances as texts rather than acts, and to prepare for them with the same goal as present-day textual editors: to clear away accretions. Not that this is not a laudable and necessary step; but what is an ultimate step for an editor should be only a first step for a performer, as the very temporal relationship between the functions of editing and performing already suggests." -Richard Taruskin, Text and Act